"It's A Blessing To Be Here This Year:" How Omaha Residents Celebrated Juneteenth
Omahans honor African American history and culture at Juneteenth celebrations all weekend long.
North Omaha has been filled with joy all weekend long as residents citywide gather to celebrate Juneteenth.
The holiday, established on June 19, marks the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, first learned of their freedom following the end of the Civil War. While Juneteenth was only recently recognized as a federal holiday in 2021, African Americans across the country — and in Omaha — have celebrated the day for more than a century.
COVID-19 put Omaha’s official Juneteenth celebrations on hold for the past two years, but this weekend the North Omaha community came back in full force. The weekend brought parade-goers, the sweet aroma of barbecue brisket fries and homemade sweets in a sea of Black-owned businesses at Taste of North Omaha — and even a steampunk tea-party debut.
Omaha’s 2022 Juneteenth Parade
Frankie Jean Williams looked forward to stepping into her role as chairwoman of the Juneteenth parade. As a member of the Omaha chapter of the NAACP and a native of North Omaha, Williams’ loyalty to her community motivated her to coordinate the annual event.
Prior to the pandemic-related parade cancellations in the past two years, parade attendance had increased nearly 20%, according to Williams. One hundred entries made up the procession starting at 24th Street and Lake Street at Saturday morning’s parade, from decked-out dance teams to banner-carrying businesses.
Despite the glaring sun, participants and spectators stayed cool, spraying each other with water and handing out paper fans as drumlines marched by people in lawn chairs.
Williams said Juneteenth is more than just a day or weekend celebration.
“While we want to celebrate the holiday, we want to recognize [that] there are still strides to be made. We want to educate young people on how we got to where we are, and remind some others there’s still work to be done.”
Taste of North Omaha
In the parking lot of Eagles Nest Worship Center on 56th Street and Sorensen Parkway, LadyFaye of LadyFaye’s Sweet Variety Treats arranged platters of loaf cakes, homemade banana pudding and chicken wings for sale.
LadyFaye’s business is one of almost 30 that made up Taste of North Omaha, a two-day gathering of Black-owned businesses from around the metro area. After its two-year hiatus, the Friday and Saturday celebrations felt long overdue for some business owners.
“It’s a blessing to be here this year,” LadyFaye said. “There’s a lot to be said to see all of us as small business owners come together and support one another.”
Along with locally-owned food stands, Taste of North Omaha hosted Omaha-based retail businesses and artists. College student and entrepreneur Michelle Reese showcased her art and fashion brand Cocox Kickz alongside other Black business owners.
Reese originally customized shoes and jackets as a hobby, and only recently began doing commissions. Having her own stand at Taste of North Omaha is another step in turning her passion project into a reality.
“It’s very big for me,” Reese said. “Especially [with] Black-owned businesses, we come together and support each other.”
A Steampunk Tea Party
Jade Rogers had long been dreaming of a steampunk tea party filled with costumes and characters to honor Black Victorian excellence — and she made it a reality on Saturday afternoon.
Rogers is the chief innovation officer of the House of Afros, Capes, & Curls, a community for nerds of color founded in 2015 to bond over shared interests like science fiction and Afrofuturism.
While paying homage to the holiday, the House also incorporated their own, self-described “nerd flair,” embracing the stylings of steampunk fashion. Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction that combines 19th-century industrial machinery with retrofuturistic technology.
Tea party go-ers sported intricate clockwork pieces, leather corsets and dramatic skirts. Lo-fi musical group The Family Band set the tone as people milled about sampling tea and taking portraits in front of 3D backdrops.
Beyond the purely aesthetic nature of steampunk, Rogers explained that Black leaders and culture are seldom represented in the history of the Victorian era, the time that followed the Emancipation Proclamation.
“We don’t focus on those people who right after slavery ends are free. Freed or enslaved, they did remarkable things in a short period of time, in the midst of great obstacles and barriers,” Rogers said. “They were academics, they were activists, they were entrepreneurs. Juneteenth gives you an opportunity to celebrate those people.”
Rogers’ nephew Conrad Clifton and Clifton’s wife Austi Rogers helped organize the portrait photography, flying in from New York with rolled canvases and props in boxes.
“I’m so excited for Jade. I’ve learned so much from her,” Austi Rogers said. “She was talking to me about this idea over a year ago. I’ve never been to an event like this, and I was so excited to be a part of it. This is so amazing.”
Members of the House are looking forward to making the Juneteenth celebration an annual gathering, although they hope to explore themes beyond steampunk. Rogers welcomes anyone to join her organization.
“The House is just that, a house,” Rogers said. “If you’re part of the community, you’re part of the community. I am always going to focus my energy towards Black people and people of color. But anyone can come along for the ride.”
This story was originally published in The Reader.
All photographs were taken by Isa Luzarraga.